Like many people, I have always felt a deep desire to tell my story and to be heard. I believe that’s what led me to my first counselling experience in fifth grade. I just wanted someone to see my hurt, and the school counsellor did just that.
But my childhood vulnerability and desire for authentic communication sometimes led me into unhealthy counselling situations. There were all kinds of adults who wanted to support a young, precocious kid. And while I formed some beautiful relationships, I also ended up in some toxic situations (none of which were my fault, to be clear).
When I was 11, I met a youth pastor who wanted to mentor me. Soon, we were sharing our hearts online — but I was far too young to understand the impact of a married 20-something speaking privately online with a preteen. The result was a man who sexually groomed me, and a toxic relationship that lasted into my teens.
Today, I’m well into my 30s, I’ve been married over a decade, and I have three growing kids. I still long to be heard, but I’m far more careful about whom I trust in the telling of my stories. I’m also passionate about protecting young people from predators, and I am particularly aggrieved by the number of pastors who have recently been accused of sexual misconduct.
In December 2021, the Meeting House megachurch, which has sites across Ontario, announced that allegations of sexual misconduct had been made against teaching pastor Bruxy Cavey. (I attended Cavey’s church a number of times in the early 2000s.) In March, Cavey resigned at the request of church leadership. In a statement Cavey posted that month, he said he had had an extramarital affair “some years ago.”
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“Hagar,” the anonymous woman who first came forward with allegations against Cavey, also published a statement: “This began during a pastoral counselling relationship when I was 23 and [Cavey] was 46. I was in crisis and trusted him, and I did not, nor could I, consent to a sexual relationship with him,” she wrote. “This for me was *NOT* an extramarital relationship or affair, it was a devastating twisting of pastoral care into sexual abuse.”
It’s been more than four months since Cavey resigned, and it seems like every few weeks, the story evolves. At the end of May, Cavey was arrested and charged with sexual assault by Hamilton police. In June, the church revealed there were 38 reports of sexual misconduct against four ex-Meeting House pastors.
Whatever the outcome of Cavey’s case, this situation raises an issue that I feel strongly about. I’ve long believed that pastors should not enter into one-on-one counselling with their parishioners because they can overstep their role. Instead, they should be directing members to psychotherapists, social workers or psychiatrists.
“Pastoral counselling was never meant to be psychological counselling, it was simply a place to experience care,” says Angela Lam, co-founder of Hagar’s Voice, a clergy sexual abuse survivors’ advocacy group named after Hagar, the anonymous alleged victim. Danielle Strickland, a former teaching pastor at The Meeting House, is also a co-founder of Hagar’s Voice. Lam adds that while pastoral counselling is typically part of the job description, it should be focused on the care of the church community, not providing the type of counsel that you’d see in a professional therapist’s office.
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From my perspective, this means that a pastor can meet with congregants to offer support if needed, but instead of meeting regularly one-on-one, it’s best that the pastor advocates for the congregant to seek professional support.
As someone who has been married to a pastor for over a decade, I personally don’t see the need for the kind of one-on-one counselling that you often see pastors providing. I do acknowledge that access to professional therapy is a major financial barrier for many. But pastors should not be filling the gaps — they simply aren’t trained to.
“When a pastor has received appropriate training, they are equipped to receive confessions and offer care, but they are also aware of the limitations of the role they should play. Knowing this limitation should lead them to guide their community members towards a professional counselling practitioner,” says Lam.
She suggests some protocols for a safer pastoral care environment, which include: offices with windows and intentional furniture arrangements; scheduling meetings when others will be in the office (such as during office hours); and regular accountability for the pastor (such as sharing a log of meetings with congregants).
While eliminating counselling from the job description won’t get rid of clergy sexual abuse, I think it’s one step in the right direction. And pastors who refuse to relinquish their “counsellor” title may need to understand that being a pastor doesn’t mean being everything to everyone.
Brianna Bell is a writer in Guelph, Ont.
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